Robert Charles Wilson has the best “what if” ideas of anybody writing today—well, maybe he’s equal first with Schroeder and Egan. When people complain about science fiction these days lacking originality, he’s one of the first people I mention as a counterexample. He thinks of wonderful “what if” questions and then tells stories about realistic characters living in the futures those questions lead them to. Sometimes he makes this work, and other times he asks a terrific question and gives it a less satisfying answer. (I’m looking at you, Darwinia.) He’s never less than really really interesting, and when he pulls it off he’s quite astoundingly good. The Chronoliths (2001) is one of my favourites. It was my very favourite until Spin overtook it.
The premise of The Chronoliths is that one day in 2021 a huge glassy monument commemorating a victory in 2041 comes crashing down in Thailand. Other monuments follow in other cities across Asia, many of them doing huge damage to life and property when they appear out of the future. They are made by a new kind of physics, and are definitely being sent back in time. Their monumental existence starts to shape the future they celebrate. Meanwhile people get caught up in their fields of weird probability, and their lives get even more distorted than the rest of history. This is the first person close-up story of Scott and his family and what happened in the twenty years between the first message from the future arriving and being sent.
Our first person narrator Scott is the typical modern everyman—he’s a divorced father with problems with his own parents. He’s divorced because he wasn’t there for his wife and child when the first chronolith touched down and his daughter had an ear infection. The story covers twenty years—the daughter grows up and has agency, representing the next generation, the generation shaped by the inevitablity of the coming victories. The heart of the book is about being there for your family as opposed to finding out what the heck is going on with the huge mysterious world-changing thing that’s happening—and Wilson does remarkably well with focusing on a dilemma that most SF doesn’t even spend time blinking at.
There are enough cool ideas here for anyone. The speculation about time and probability and the implications of the technology that’s sending the chronoliths back through time are fascinating. Then there’s the human level—the motivation for doing it. They say they celebrate the victory of a mysterious Kuin—and before very long there are a lot of people claiming to be Kuin, everywhere. Kuin doesn’t state positions, so Kuin stands for anything people want him to. Kuin’s victory is inevitable. Everybody’s responding to Kuin in some way, whether to welcome him or oppose him—but he isn’t here yet.
There’s also a mad scientist—she’s called Sulamith Chopra, a Tamil who immigrated to the U.S. when she was three. She’s gay, too. (She’s one of the good guys. But she is definitely a little mad.) There’s a whole planet, though the hero and his family are American and most of the actual book takes place in the U.S. But really I think Wilson gets points for starting in Thailand and having excursions to Jerusalem and Mexico—so many books set in the near future barely footnote the rest of the world. There’s a fanatic and a love interest and a whole set of complicated people in the kind of complicated shapes of relationships people get into. There’s a really good story—a really good human story and a really good science fiction story.
There’s a particularly odd issue with reading a book that’s ten years old and set ten years in the future—it seems simultaneously ahead and behind where it ought to be. There’s a comment in the very beginning about the wats of Thailand, and the character says you can see pictures of them in any encyclopaedia—and that seems so old fashioned! Google image search will show you pictures of them without getting out of your chair! Something weird seems to have happened to the internet, because it’s sort of there and sort of isn’t—there’s something more like satellite TV, and people print things out all the time and have printouts lying around. Maybe that’s what people did in 1999, which is probably when this was written? It feels weird, it feels retro, and I didn’t notice this when I first read it in 2002. There are also people going to airports and catching planes with only the most farcical levels of security—pre 911 U.S. norms, but how odd they seem! This doesn’t make the book less enjoyable, and it certainly isn’t the kind of problem Wilson could have done anything about, it’s just odd. Twenty years ahead is one of the most difficult times to write.
The Chronoliths is a character story that also gives us a lot to think about—exactly what science fiction ought to do.
I read this in one gulp, barely setting it down at all, and I think I remember doing the same the first time I read it. So you might want to clear some time in your schedule for this one.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.